Continuing the link roundup format I started using last week, here are three more excellent GMing links:
Obsidian Portal: This new site is designed to help groups manage their tabletop campaigns, and it has an interesting focus: “Rather than trying to automate the playing of the game, Obsidian Portal provides tools to help facilitate the storytelling.” Here’s a sample of what a campaign being managed on OP looks like: Arkanapolis, which features an adventure log, a wiki and an NPC tracker, along with the community aspect of sharing ideas and resources with other groups. Obsidian Portal is nicely executed, and holds a lot of promise.
Don’t Roll, Think: In this ars ludi post, Ben Robbins proposes ditching spot checks in non-combat situations, and having your players ask for more details based on your descriptions, instead. It’s an interesting perspective, but while I think over-reliance on die rolls can be a problem, spot checks (and other “Did I notice anything?”-type rolls) are a good thing in my book. On not concealing adventure-critical information behind spot checks, though, I couldn’t agree more. Check it out and see what you think.
It’s About The Character, Not The Player – Serving Up Characterization Encounters, Part 1: This Roleplaying Tips article by Johnn Four offers a wealth of good player-oriented advice on sussing out PC motives, provoking tough choices, developing character backgrounds during play (my favorite section), the distinction between acting and representation (which was a light bulb moment for me) and more.
The article’s title doesn’t really do it justice — it’s essentially a grab-bag of tricks and tools for encouraging your players to think more about their characters, which is a foundation-level topic for GMs. Even if your players do this already, there are tips you might find useful — and if you’re new to GMing, or your group is heading away from a hack-and-slash style where PCs are just combat stats, this article makes a great starting point. If Johnn writes another GMing book (his first was GM Mastery: NPC Essentials), I hope he includes this article in it.
Thanks for the nod, Martin! We’re signing up new campaigns every day, and things are starting to get interesting. I guess I wasn’t crazy when I thought it might be nice to have a central place to read about other people’s campaigns.
Back in those days (1979), around the tables I played at we used perception rolls all the time. The basic mechanic was to roll a d20 for 25(minus)intelligence or higher. I think the spot check went in because people were using it, not the other way around. Even in the early days, we had long-winded DMs with boring descriptions that didn’t catch the players’ attention…
I once started a campaign that depended on the players making a spot check to see an assassin in a large crowd. The expectation was that they would see him and stop him, thereby meeting each other and joining forces.
Of course half failed their checks and the others decided they didn’t want to interfere with the assassin. I forget how I salvaged it, but it wasn’t pretty.
Failed spot checks always end in disaster…
Regarding spot checks, I think the answer to this depends critically on what system you are using. Role playing games are are, as the name suggest, an attempt to synthesize role playing and gaming. Different systems exist at different points on this continuum. D&D is decidedly towards the ‘gaming’ end of the spectrum.
In D&D specifically (which seemed to be the focus of the ars ludi article) a key part of the balance of the game is the idea of that classes players can choose from are all roughly equivalent in usefulness. Different in their skill sets. Different in the usefulness in different situations. But over the life of the campaign they should all be roughly equivalent.
Unfortunately a lot of that is up to the GM. Hit points and base attack bonus are almost always useful. Skill points, and the class skills to spend them on, are much more situational and it takes some effort from the GM ensure their utility. If I chose to create a skill based character and put a bunch of point in to Spot because I want my character to be hyper-aware, I would be mighty annoyed if the GM decided not to use spot checks any more. I would have spent a significant portion of a very limited resource and gotten nothing to show for it.
At the very least if you decide to GM this way you need to let your players know up front so they can chose their advancement and skill point expenditure appropriately.
p.s. As I said, this is dependent on system and game. If you’re playing a role playing centric system like Spirit of the Century, by all means, ignore Spot. The characters just see whatever is dramatically appropriate.
Spot checks of course have existed from the beginning of the RPG hobby. They only applied to secret doors (for everyone, and sloping passages and such for dwarves and halflings), but still, there they were.
The key to determining if a spot check (or for that matter ANY check) is does the success or failure of the check make the game more interesting? Back in the early D&D days, success allowed the PCs to take different paths through the dungeon, or to find particularly tasty bits of treasure. Failing the check forced the PCs to take different routes, perhaps with less treasure and more monsters.
When I was running Cold Iron and D20, my heaviest use of spot checks was to affect encounter difficulty. Further, another important piece was that players could make strategic choices to improve their spot checks (at the expense of something else).
And that leads to the next factor. Do the players have the ability to influence their spot check success rate with tactical or strategic choices? Back in early D&D they could, they could take non-human PCs or henchmen along that improved their spot chances, but they didn’t fight as well, and had caps on advancement. In 3.5, characters may increase their spot (plus search and listen) skills instead of increasing other skills.
One problem is that the other skills MAY NOT be enticing enough, which leads to the next aspect of the equation. The interraction of the strategic and tactical choices must be sufficiently complex, and preferably unstable, such that players can never “solve” the problem. Tic-tac-toe is the classic example of a solved problem. We can look at the first few moves of the game and then tell you what the ending board will look like if the players don’t make any mistakes. Of course if we can make the chance of a mistake high enough, the game might be interesting.
Dan also raises a good point. If the “system” is not clear to the players (and here I use the Lumpley definition of system, so system includes the choices the GM is making, not just the written rules), it may be impossible to make informed choices. A GM who wrongly uses his discretion can reduce a potentially interesting game to an exercise in futility. Chris Chin (Bankuei) calls abilities that are dependent on such GM discretion “mother may I” abilities.
I must once again disagree about something. This time it is “don’t roll, think”. I’ve been many times frustrated by the hundred and one questions game that players (as opposed to gm) play.
It starts like this: “Is there rocks on the street? Yes?, Is the Zombie enough close for me to throw a rock? Ok? Can my character throw rocks? Is the zombies head soft and malleable and easily damaged by a rock? Can I pick up the rock in time..”
Which is, you know, rather boring in the long run. Instead what I so much yearn from my players is “I Throw a rock at the zombies face. . Smash!”, which in my book this is oh so much better. Dynamic even.
Don’t encourage the hundred questions! You’ll be sorry.
As for concealing adventure-critical information behind search and spot checks:
I do it all the time – the checks are just set so low (usually 1 or 2) so the effect is the same, but the players get in the habit of saying “I take a couple of minutes searching through the old wizard’s paperwork while he steps out of the room” and other such things that in my opinion really push the story forward more than telling the characters they find things immediately.
Then again, I also tend to use cutscenes sometimes. On the game I had last saturday, the players investigated a murder, discovered who did it, and then framed someone else (they’re worshippers of Vecna, Lawful Good, and the guy they were keeping safe was the priest of the town). After the investigation was over, I had a rather lengthy courtroom cutscene, where they presented evidence and made several innocent people cry. :3
(Dan) At the very least if you decide to GM this way you need to let your players know up front so they can chose their advancement and skill point expenditure appropriately.
Right on. As a player, I’d be ticked if my precious skill points went into Spot, and Spot suddenly wasn’t useful anymore. I suppose you could retro this change by granting additional skill points, but even then it would still have to do be done after the whole group agreed on making the change in the first place.
Discordian: Your rock/zombie scenario sounds to me like the hallmark of a player who is used to playing with overly-restrictive GMs. Accustomed to getting shot down when he wants to do cool stuff, this player is breaking down cool stuff into smaller bites, and trying to get the GM to agree to those bites in succession — ultimately leading up to getting to do something cool.
Discordian: I agree with Martin. What is being suggested for encouraging players to ask questions and perhaps skip rolls is more along the lines of what dagfari outlined. And I agree with dagfari, doing it this way does help add color, and it also makes sure the players are in control of when and where they search.
But even if search check rolls are often skipped, I would not eliminate such a mechanic. But I’d make sure that the mechanic is relevant. It should be applied like we used to apply climbing and listening skills in the past (and frankly spot rolls). You don’t have to make a climbing roll to go up a flight of stairs. You don’t need to make a listen roll to hear a normal conversation you are participating in. You don’t need to make a spot roll to see the barn in front of you. Now some game mechanics lay out a scale of penalties and DCs and such so that for normal people, such things ARE automatic using the mechanic. Unfortunately, sometimes they mess up the scale and the penalties, and a somewhat average person might find themselves unable to listen to someone talking in a normal voice 5′ away. Or the worst I have seen, spot is useless for seeing at “strategic” distances (climbing a tree or hill, and looking for a bulding a few miles away). In fact, with the penalties, you might not be able to spot the football flying through the goalposts at the opposite end of the field… (hmm, check math from D20 SRD, 100 yds equals 300′, a -30 penalty to spot…, oh, that barn at 2 miles, that’s more than a -100 penalty…). Another problem with such scales when combined with D&D style skill improvement for experience levels is that the high level character can automatically spot tiny things, if we try and work out a workable scale where an average person CAN spot the footbal, the high level PC can probably spot an ant at 100 yards or something ridiculous).